Public librarians are awesome. They are the most versatile, eclectic members of the helping professions, and books are just a small part of their purview.
Librarians specialize in providing access to knowledge. Pragmatic, resourceful and responsive, they recognize — and work to remedy — conditions that impact our community’s ability to obtain and utilize knowledge.
That is why you will find public librarians managing art and music collections, teaching children to code and use 3D printers, providing homework help and after-school snacks to hungry kids, offering job training and new-business or tax-preparation courses, and holding storytimes and literacy classes.
Jill Harrell, children’s librarian at Phoenix Public Library’s Agave branch in north Phoenix, is one of these highly committed professionals. About five years ago, she noticed that some of the children who attended her regular storytimes had problems adapting to the large, often crowded group settings.
Different kids, different problems. Some were overwhelmed, some overstimulated; some couldn’t focus, others were bossy. Parents of those children were struggling, too, when their kids would act out or behave inappropriately.
Harrell wondered what type of program would allow these kids to get the most out of storytime and learn skills that would eventually allow them to successfully transition back to the larger venue. She wanted a place where distressed parents could relax a little and not feel that peers were silently critiquing their parenting skills.
She realized that a smaller, quieter space was a good first step. Then she worked with occupational, speech and music therapists and the staff at Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center for pointers on how to develop her program.
A “sensory storytime” movement designed specifically for children with autism was getting started around this time and offered some excellent resources, but Harrell knew that kids who aren’t on the autism spectrum also have issues that keep them from adjusting to regular storytimes. (At least one child in 20 in Arizona has one or more disabilities, according to Cornell University’s disabilitystatistics.org.) Her goal was to give all parents and children “strategies and skills to help them participate in typical library programs and to help integrate them into the larger community with their peers.”
Harrell made her case before the library director, and her inclusive view prevailed. Storytimes for Families with Special Needs began in 2015. The program is offered at 11:30 a.m. Fridays in the smaller-sized Babytime room at Agave.
Storytimes for Families with Special Needs is for “children with all types of developmental disabilities — including developmental delays, speech delays and sensory issues or behavior challenges — who are at the preschool level of development, regardless of their chronological age,” Harrell says.
Because of the sessions’ focus on inclusivity, Harrell doesn’t ask parents to provide her with disability labels. The child’s name and what he or she needs in order to successfully attend social programs is enough. Harrell is not a therapist and doesn’t provide treatment. Her small storytime group is built around language, play, social skills and sensory needs, because she believes the role of library staff is to “supplement, enrich and extend children’s literacy development.”
I visited Storytimes for Families with Special Needs recently and loved it. The carpeted venue is modern in style, but inviting and visually engaging — asymmetrical walls, tiny colored spot lights, comfortable banquette seating and a corral full of big squishy bean bags and plenty of toys.
A white board parked inside the entrance holds an early literacy tip for caregivers: “Keep reading fun and playful. Give your child something to hold. Stop when it’s no longer fun.” The board sports manilla paper pockets, each labeled with one of the session’s activities. Later, when each activity begins, a child is chosen to remove the proper card from the proper pocket, then return it to the “done” pocket when the activity is finished.
Bubble-blowing — a sure-fire attention-getter — is the warm-up act and gets the children on the same page. Harrell personally meets and greets every visitor (seven kids from ages 2-8, four caregivers and two observers the day I visited), and everyone is introduced. Then the “Hi, Hello” song, to the tune of “London Bridge,” starts the session moving — literally. Almost every element of the program involves movement along with vocalizing and touch.
Harrell has the calm, balanced presence of a Zen master; low-key but spirited, dignified yet funny, focused but flexible, patient yet disciplined. She is a marvelous teacher, totally in the moment. Children respond to her kindness and obvious respect for them.
Her program is beautifully orchestrated. After the opening, there is another familiar song, “The Alphabet Song” with sign. Magnetic letters — all Ps, the letter of the day — are handed out, followed by pig, panda, polar bear and parrot hand puppets. Purple-painted Ps are plastered to paper plates. (Try saying that five times, fast!) All handouts are put away after Harrell’s gentle warning countdown.
Then it’s time to read a picture book: “Bremner and the Party,” about a pufferfish who is anxious about going to a party. He’s afraid he will be afraid, puff up and ruin the celebration. The kids listen attentively, and Harrell expertly draws them out, getting them to think and talk about how the situations in the story might make them feel if they were Bremner. (The book is by Carrie Bolin and Jessica Firpi and illustrated by John Graziano.)
Next, it’s time for more songs and movement. The children drive a fire truck and zoom to the moon; act out “The Wheels on the Bus” and dance up a storm with elasticized ribbons on their wrists; play a counting and jumping game and finish up with more bubbles and a chorus of “Wonderful World” and good-byes.
Storytimes employ many techniques found in the special needs best-practices playbook — visual, auditory and tactile stimulation; dependable, repetitive routines; multiple communications modalities (print, graphics, speech and sign); interactive hands-on materials, and above all, responsive one-to-one emotional support.
After the regular session ends, Stay and Play begins for those who can. It is less structured, so everyone mingles and chats. A different assortment of tactile and visually stimulating toys and puzzles emerge from the corral, along with the pièce de résistance — a big wood-and-plastic fan-powered contraption that launches sheer, colorful scarves into the air. Everyone wants a turn on both ends of the launcher, and the space is soon filled with laughter and floating bits of rainbow color. Harrell works with the kids, asking questions, demonstrating how to feed the launcher or running interference when needed. The moms and caregivers swap stories and tips. As various kids get hungry or restive, playthings are put away and the get-together breaks up.
“Build it and they will come” isn’t as simple as it sounds. Program development, approvals, funding, scheduling, staffing, community awareness — each takes time and hard work. And once it’s built, and they’ve come, and you’ve seen that it’s good, you want to grow it and share it.
Because Harrell is a passionate champion of this program, which is obviously near and dear to her heart, she welcomes observers and works with Phoenix Public Library librarians as well as representatives from Maricopa County, Glendale and Scottsdale libraries, hoping that they will set up special needs storytimes in their communities.
It’s tricky, though. Librarians who conduct these story sessions need the right temperament in addition to proper training; and sessions, to be effective, need to be weekly to establish a useful routine. Attendance numbers — so important in gauging the success of regular programs — aren’t as important in special needs programs, because of the more challenging circumstances of the participants. Some days are better than others. Some days, it’s impossible to get out of the house.
The success of special needs outreach programs should be measured by their own three Rs — resources, results and relationships. Harrell has created what she modestly calls “a positive, supportive, encouraging environment that is predictable and structured for the children,” and she has seen her child- and family-focused program develop valuable, trusting relationships among families, library staff and services.
What I saw were happy, engaged kids who think learning and libraries are fun, and relaxed, re-energized parents who enjoy a special space to share their concerns with other caring adults — thanks to the efforts of an awesome librarian. I’d say that’s success by any measure.
Storytimes for Families with Special Needs is 11:30 a.m. Fridays at Agave Library, 23550 N. 36th Ave., Glendale (in north Phoenix).